I bought five of the six as a bundle on Amazon, not with any great enthusiasm - more with a view to updating myself on what kinds of books the manufacturing interest wishes to promote: it costs £5000 to enter a book for the Booker Prize. I left one of the six off my order since it was described as the third volume of a trilogy and if that’s the case then I would have to buy the trilogy, wouldn’t I? What are they doing just listing a third of a work as a potential prize-winner? (Tsitsi Dangarmbga, This Mournable Body)?
I took the shortest book first, Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar: sensible length (229 pages, wide spacing to text, decent font size), short chapters, crisp writing. The first person narrator (Antara) is not very nice, very prickly, a bit disturbed and with every reason for being so. She splices the story of her Indian childhood into a narrative of her current situation (still in India) as wife of Dilip and eventually less-than-perfect mother of baby Annika. The pace is steady but the narrative tension and edginess increases through the book, and as a result my approval rating went up as I read on. Like many readers, my attention span has been shortened by the siren call of the computer sitting opposite on my desk but though at first I was checking my emails more or less after each chapter I settled into longer reading stints - the chapters about the narrator’s adolescence are very well done. First impression: at least good enough to be in the running for a prize of some kind.
Next up, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King set mostly in 1930s Ethiopia. My paperback has over twenty endorsements (always depressing), but including one from Salman Rushdie who writes, “A brilliant novel, lyrically lifting history towards myth”. I think he is pulling out the most important aspect, but I also think the novel doesn’t quite achieve its goal of lyrically lifting history towards myth. It’s readable, at times gripping, there is a strong narrative thread, and I guess that for most readers the fictionalised history will be new to them as it was to me. So lots of positives, to which reviewers from the police department add that the book is about “female empowerment”. Why bother with Aster and Hirut, Ferres and the cook, Kidane and Fucelli, Aklilu and Navarra when you could just write about “female empowerment”?
But the problematic aspect begins with the simple fact that the book has three epigraphs, which is two too many. We are offered “The Iliad by Homer”, “Isaiah”, and “Agamemnon by Aeschylus”. From this one can deduce that Mengiste, or her editor, reckons that her readers will know what “Isaiah” is but might not be able to place “The Iliad” or “Agamemnon” unless reminded of their authors or vice versa, though I guess there are those who will have recently been reading Madeleine Miller.
As well as providing a historical narrative in which complex characters are developed, Mengiste tries to lift it into myth in passages (including Greek-inspired “Chorus” passages) which I ended up feeling were overwritten, overwrought, and at worst meant to help out the person who will be trying to sell the film rights to Hollywood. In that terrible place they would be converted into panoramic images of “woman standing erect beside man on horseback on top of mountain, silhouetted by sun, hair blowing in wind” etc.
I can imagine a better novel in which all this stuff was cut out and Mengiste stayed with the exploration of human complexity, intensity of human feeling, and the sometimes ambiguous character of violence - all things about which Mengiste writes extremely well, and in general leaving it to the reader to develop their own understanding of what has been depicted.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Booker judges gave it the prize.
There is something not quite right about Douglas Stuart’s autobiographical novel Shuggie Bain - I guess Douglas was probably called Duggie as a child. He grew up in Glasgow but now lives in the USA where he wrote this book. It was first published in America and apart from a one-word puff from Graham Norton (“Brilliant”) all the puffs on the jacket of my hardback are from American publications. The book belongs to the genre of rough working class childhood - in this case declining industries (coal and shipyards), delinquent father (taxi driver), very alcoholic mother, older siblings busily trying to escape. The genre is still acceptable, though nowadays if the eponymous hero is male he also needs to be gay, since straight working class white males are going nowhere in publishing. Shuggie is gay right from the start: the child trails Daphne, a pink plastic doll, to alert his readers.
Stuart acknowledges a lot of help and from the names and places I guess that most of the help was American with rough working class morphing into trailer trash. Whatever the genesis, the result is a parody of the original genre: relentless, no opportunity missed to deepen the misery, no comic relief, no irony. And I suspect it may be the fault of his helpers rather than the author. I do hope it doesn’t win the prize; I abandoned the book half-way through.
I wrote the previous paragraphs nearly four months ago. I then picked up Diane Cooke’s The New Wilderness, and promptly put it down again. No thanks. And when Shuggie Bain won the prize, I didn’t have the heart to bother with the final book on the shortlist, Brandon Taylor’s Real Life. But I have read it now, a few months later - I saw it on the shelf and thought “Well, I bought it, I suppose I should try …”. It’s good. Technically, there are some accomplished set piece scenes in which the small cast of characters are meeting together, taking time out, exchanging remarks which sometimes turn awkward. These scenes are tautly written and keep the reader on edge. There is an interesting and unusual backdrop of campus science labs. There is a complex main character, gay black male Wallace, who only feels clichéd in the stream of consciousness / monologue in which he describes his childhood. The chapter which it occupies (pp 193 - 201) is perhaps just too short to attain a complexity which matches the character we are learning about in the other chapters. There are hints of Virginia Woolf in the writing - there is a nod to To The Lighthouse - but the writing - though frequently referencing landscape and weather in the context of an exploration of human emotion - is not either over-literary or under-literary. It’s a book you could compare & contrast with Sally Rooney’s Normal People. Forced to choose between Taylor's Real Life and Doshi's Burnt Sugar, with which it has things in common, I would pick her book.
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